Enron Makes Case for Campaign-Finance Reform

by Senator Russell Feingold

As the Enron story unfolds, we are reminded why the U.S. Supreme Court, in its famous 1976 Buckley vs. Valeo decision, said that the appearance of corruption, not just corruption itself, justifies congressional action to place limits on our campaign-finance system.

The court understood that public mistrust of government is destructive to democracy; from a constitutional point of view, it hardly matters whether that mistrust is based on actual misconduct or simply its appearance.

Congress must address public confidence in government at this crucial time by finally passing campaign-finance reform.

In the case of Enron’s collapse, the need to address public mistrust is paramount for Congress and the Bush administration as they investigate alleged wrongdoing.

When a corporation such as Enron leaves devastated employees and fleeced shareholders in its wake, the public depends on Congress and the administration to determine what went wrong and defend the public interest.

But the potential for a conflict of interest is clear.

Many of the elected officials now asked to sit in judgment of Enron, including members of Congress, the attorney general and the president, have been accepting and even asking for campaign contributions from Enron for years.

The political parties have pocketed more than $3.5 million in unregulated, unlimited soft money from Enron since 1991.

Congress must move forward with the investigations into Enron’s conduct, despite the potential conflict of interest that political contributions might pose.

In fact, this is familiar territory for Congress. Everyday, members of Congress accept huge campaign contributions with one hand, and vote on issues affecting their contributors with the other. And everyday, the public naturally questions whether their representatives are giving special treatment to the wealthy interests that fund their campaigns and bankroll their political parties.

In the case of the Enron investigations, each member of Congress must decide whether simply donating Enron contributions to charity or even recusal is the appropriate way to attempt to address public skepticism.

Enron deftly used the campaign-finance system to its advantage long before the story of its collapse made its political contributions so well known. Enron’s executives had a hot line to government leaders shaping energy policy, and even reportedly were assisted by high government officials with a debt owed to Enron by the government of India.

The Enron scandal illustrates the permanent conflict of interest that political contributions — especially unlimited soft money contributions to the parties — have created for elected officials at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

In the case of soft money, both parties have gladly accepted money from officials at Enron and the auditing firm of Arthur Andersen. Those soft money contributions compromise the integrity of members of both parties as inquiries into these corporations’ conduct get under way.

Attorney General John Ashcroft’s decision to recuse himself from the investigation is confirmation of this deep conflict of interest. The Bush administration must take every step possible to remove the appearance of a conflict in all aspects of this case, and if evidence of impropriety by any high-ranking official arises, it should immediately appoint a special counsel.

But however hard Congress and the administration might work to maintain the integrity of the investigations into Enron’s actions, they are hindered from the start by the staggering sums of money Enron poured into the political system.

We are just beginning to understand the depth of the accounting and financial scandals Enron and Arthur Andersen have set in motion, and it will take time to decide how Congress should work to prevent similar problems in the future.

But we don’t need months to decide how to address the potential conflict of interest that unlimited political contributions create for members of Congress and presidential administrations. The Senate passed the McCain-Feingold bill to eliminate the soft money system last April, and the House is poised to debate its counterpart, the Shays-Meehan bill.

While eliminating soft money will not cure the campaign-finance system of every ill, it will end a system of unlimited donations that has blatantly put political access and influence up for sale.

Enron is just one of the many corporations, unions and wealthy individuals that has exploited the soft-money loophole to buy influence with Congress and the executive branch at the very highest levels.

While Enron’s demise has highlighted some of the worst failings of government, perhaps it can also, ironically, restore some faith in government by affecting real change.

One of the first things that can be done is to shut down the soft-money system. Both Congress and the Bush administration should take seriously the public’s concern about their potential conflict of interest.

By passing campaign-finance reform, they can begin to regain some of the public’s trust.

Russ Feingold is a Wisconsin Democrat. He and Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, are sponsoring legislation that would ban soft money.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
August 03, 2015
Joseph Mangano – Janette D. Sherman
The Atomic Era Turns 70, as Nuclear Hazards Endure
Nelson Valdes
An Internet Legend: the Pope, Fidel and the Black President
Robert Hunziker
The Perfectly Nasty Ocean Storm
Jack Dresser
The Case of Alison Weir: Two Palestinian Solidarity Organizations Borrow from Joe McCarthy’s Playbook
Ahmad Moussa
Incinerating Palestinian Children
Greg Felton
Greece Succumbs to Imperialist Banksterism
Binoy Kampmark
Stalling the Trans-Pacific Partnership: the Failure of the Hawai’i Talks
Ted Rall
My Letter to Nick Goldberg of the LA Times
Mark Weisbrot
New Greek Bailout Increases the Possibility of Grexit
Jose Martinez
Black/Hispanic/Women: a Leadership Crisis
Victor Grossman
German Know-Nothings Today
Patrick Walker
We’re Not Sandernistas: Reinventing the Wheels of Bernie’s Bandwagon
Norman Pollack
Moral Consequences of War: America’s Hegemonic Thirst
Ralph Nader
Republicans Support Massive Tax Evasion by Starving IRS Budget
Alexander Reid Ross
Colonial Pride and the Killing of Cecil the Lion
Suhayb Ahmed
What’s Happening in Britain: Jeremy Corbyn and the Future of the Labour Party
Weekend Edition
July 31-33, 2015
Jeffrey St. Clair
Bernie and the Sandernistas: Into the Void
John Pilger
Julian Assange: the Untold Story of an Epic Struggle for Justice
Roberto J. González – David Price
Remaking the Human Terrain: The US Military’s Continuing Quest to Commandeer Culture
Lawrence Ware
Bernie Sanders’ Race Problem
Andrew Levine
The Logic of Illlogic: Narrow Self-Interest Keeps Israel’s “Existential Threats” Alive
ANDRE VLTCHEK
Kos, Bodrum, Desperate Refugees and a Dying Child
Paul Street
“That’s Politics”: the Sandernistas on the Master’s Schedule
Ted Rall
How the LAPD Conspired to Get Me Fired from the LA Times
Mike Whitney
Power-Mad Erdogan Launches War in Attempt to Become Turkey’s Supreme Leader
Ellen Brown
The Greek Coup: Liquidity as a Weapon of Coercion
Stephen Lendman
Russia Challenges America’s Orwellian NED
Will Parrish
The Politics of California’s Water System
John Wight
The Murder of Ali Saad Dawabsha, a Palestinian Infant Burned Alive by Israeli Terrorists
Jeffrey Blankfort
Leading Bibi’s Army in the War for Washington
Mary Lou Singleton
Gender, Patriarchy, and All That Jazz
Robert Fantina
Israeli Missteps Take a Toll
Pete Dolack
Speculators Circling Puerto Rico Latest Mode of Colonialism
Ron Jacobs
Spying on Black Writers: the FB Eye Blues
Paul Buhle
The Leftwing Seventies?
Binoy Kampmark
The TPP Trade Deal: of Sovereignty and Secrecy
David Swanson
Vietnam, Fifty Years After Defeating the US
Robert Hunziker
Human-Made Evolution
Shamus Cooke
Why Obama’s “Safe Zone” in Syria Will Inflame the War Zone
David Rosen
Hillary Clinton: Learn From Your Sisters
Sam Husseini
How #AllLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter Can Devalue Life
Shepherd Bliss
Why I Support Bernie Sanders for President
Louis Proyect
Manufacturing Denial
Howard Lisnoff
The Wrong Argument
Tracey Harris
Living Tiny: a Richer and More Sustainable Future